Fixing Things

By Cathy Salustri

In his nonfiction book about endangered species, Last Chance to See, the British satirist Douglas Adams says that “human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”
I went down to Clam Bayou the other day and looked around at the construction site. I saw a lot of earth-moving machines, litter, and a young black-crowned night heron. Right or wrong, the restoration is moving forward, hopefully in tandem with the heron and at odds with the litter.
I say right or wrong because I don’t know. Florida history is littered with environmental decisions that forever changed the state, and not necessarily for the better. I do not know that these decisions, like trying to straighten the Kissimmee River or drain the Everglades (we didn’t realize mosquitoes caused malaria; we thought swamps did and hey, we can sell that land if it’s dry, so let’s dredge the hell out of it!) were made with malice. Greed? Well, yes.
Humans screwed up Clam Bayou by dredging up a bunch of land so we could have houses in Gulfport, put a golf course right next to it, and allowed people to try and coexist with an estuary before anyone realized what a really, really ill-conceived idea that was.
And now we want to fix it. As a species, we’re not so good at that sort of thing. Look at any number of environmental projects in this lovely limestone state. Oh, we’re fantastically gifted at mucking up the environment, but the fixing? That’s kind of hit-and-miss for us humans.
I’m not concerned that we’re going to muck up the bayou forever. Eventually all systems right themselves; the earth possesses an amazing capacity to pull itself back into balance. Don’t believe me? Pay attention after the next hurricane, because that’s a classic example.
It’d be nice to see it recover in our lifetime, which probably won’t happen without an assist. It’d also be grand to see the stormwater diverted before it goes into the last remaining bit of estuary on Boca Ciega Bay, but that’s not going to happen. Instead we’re digging a deep pond- deeper than anything in Boca Ciega Bay, by the way- and hope it sorts itself out.
No, I’m scared it isn’t a good idea for other reasons. DDT in the soil from years ago? Dredging it up puts it back into the water and the food supply; that can’t be good for the osprey that fish Clam Bayou. Huge ponds deeper than anything that was there before? Is there a reason they weren’t there before? The arrogance of doing what nature never would have begs for failure and in Florida, ecosystems aren’t small-time. When we fail the environment, we do it in style. People across the world study our environmental failures.
I think the scientists suggested what they believed best for the bayou, but that’s the problem. We’ve created a whole new set of problems and this business of fixing isn’t as much of a science as we’d like to think.
I don’t have answers. I’m not a scientist. I don’t know what to do with all the junk that flows into Clam Bayou. I realize we’re not all going to move away, and I know that this is all part of the process of learning to coexist with nature, but I wonder if we know what we’re doing by creating things that have never existed in that area. How do you un-dig a pond that’s 30 feet deep? How do you get rid of toxins that you’ve unburied?
Scientists make the best decisions they can with the information they have. But what if the scientists are wrong? What will happen when they have to tell the water management district’s governing board- comprised of people dedicated to selling the state rather than preserving it- that things didn’t exactly pan out? What decision will that board make?
Half of the Pinellas-Anclote Basin Board members make their living from development. Not one scientist sits on the board. The larger governing board has realtors, ranchers, and farmers on it. As much as I want to believe that the scientists are doing what they think is best, every time I think about those boards, I start to feel a little queasy.
When will we learn that leaving the fate of our world in the hands of developers is just plain stupid? How can they possibly have the best interests of the estuary at heart when they, as individuals, make their livings by buying and selling land and creating huge buildings up and down the Pinellas coastline?
Do you really want the man who designed the Aqualea on Clearwater Beach deciding the fate of Clam Bayou? Do you want cattle ranchers and citrus farmers deciding what’s an acceptable way to keep nitrogen, an essential element in fertilizer, out of Boca Ciega Bay? Do you honestly believe the president of a construction company should have the right to tell scientists how to rebuild an estuary?
Look, if the restoration works, I’ll be thrilled. Believe it or not, I want it to work. I can’t wait to kayak Clam Bayou once the work finishes. Short of ripping out the golf course and stopping cars from driving on local roads, I guess a redesign is as good a choice as any.
Unless it turns out they shouldn’t have tried to redesign it at all. What if things get worse, not better?
What if they’re wrong?
Do you trust the developers with the fate of our bay?

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.